For many of my math-averse students, the inherent danger of the ACT Math Section lies not in its complexity, but in its simplicity. It’s no secret: to excel on the math section, you need a basic understanding of the concepts. Unlike the other sections (particularly the Science Section, in which you can score in the 30’s without having a strong grasp of quarks, Boyle’s Law, and the Carbon Cycle), the Math Section requires mathematical knowledge and skill.
I need to emphasize that these tricks will only take you so far. Luckily, the foundational knowledge needed is not extremely difficult, and these strategies are easy to master.
ACT Mathematics Test – 60 questions, 60 minutes
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Here is some good news.
By the time you are midway through Algebra 2, you will have seen all the necessary information tested on the ACT.
Now all you need is practice and some select strategies.
1. Master the Fundamentals
Before our first session, I suggest that my students complete the first 30 questions on a practice ACT Math section. These questions are generally easier than the ones that follow, so any student looking to score in the 30’s should be answering every one of them correctly. Practicing these 30 problems helps to strengthen a student’s foundation, remind them of concepts learned in previous years, and highlights gaps for us to work on. From there, we proceed to full practice tests as prep.
2. Don’t Repave the Road—Refill the Potholes
Once the foundational knowledge is mastered, any student is capable of answering every question on the test. While they may encounter new and tricky material, these problems can be solved with “quick fixes.”
For example, when dealing with a question about a circle, there’s no need to memorize everything your textbook says about Conic Sections. All you need is to memorize the formula. Instead of learning everything and repaving the whole road, just fill the pothole and move on.
3. Use the “Challenge/Puzzle Approach”
As students get to the last 10 questions, pressure can start to set in. The overwhelming and scary-looking problems can cause students to give up before they even start. Even if these students know how to solve the problems, precious minutes are often wasted. However, looking at the problem as a puzzle can reduce the time to 30-40 seconds.
Common strategies, such as plugging in numbers and graphing complicated functions, can save you from hairy algebra and help you outsmart the ACT. These simple shortcuts can help you crack the most difficult problems on the test and save you critical amounts of time.
4. Be Rigorous with Practice Tests—Don’t Move On Until All the Meat is Off the Bones
I’ve seen students who’ve taken 20 practice tests and not improved at all. Taking a million practice tests and not learning from your mistakes can be physically and mentally exhausting. The best way to prep for the real thing is to understand your errors before you move on.
After each test, go back to each wrong answer and try it again. See if you can get the right answer without any help. This will help you get similar problems right the next time. Additionally, write down all the problems you got wrong and study the concepts you missed. Fill up a notebook. Not only will this help you on future practice tests, but the notebook will be a great study guide for the actual test.
5. Avoid the Dreaded Careless Errors!
Easier said than done, of course, but here are a few tips on how to dodge these mistakes:
- Underline key words. If a question asks for which answer is FALSE, or the MEDIAN, or the AREA, or the FEWEST NUMBER OF PAINTINGS, UNDERLINE THOSE WORDS!
- Go back and scan. Make sure that you didn’t circle the first correct answer that you saw if the question asked for the false answer.
- Try the questions in different ways. If you solved a problem algebraically, check your work by graphing it. If you graphed it, plug in numbers. Give yourself that extra security blanket.
Learning how to wield these five strategies will help you effectively prep for the ACT Math Section. And with enough prep, the results will follow.